HOUSTON (AP) — The Houston Zoo's new Texas Wetlands Exhibit showcases some whooping cranes that were relocated from Maryland after their federally funded habitat closed last year.
The $20 million Texas complex, which opened in late May, is the first of four exhibits being built to mark the zoo's 100th anniversary in 2022, the Houston Chronicle reported . The cranes are among three species featured in the exhibit. The other two are American alligators and bald eagles, and all three are native to Texas. At one time, all were nearing extinction.
The aim is to make the new exhibit as engaging and genuine as possible, for visitors and animals.
"We wanted to build on Texas pride — that these are animals right here in Texas because Texans cared enough about it to do something," said Lee Ehmke, the zoo's CEO. "We want people to understand that the zoo is a conservation organization."
Whooping cranes have been on the endangered species list since 1967, but the population started declining decades prior due to illegal hunting and conversion of the Great Plains to agriculture.
So in 1966, scientists at the Maryland-based Patuxent Wildlife Research Center launched a captive breeding program to boost the numbers.
But that center was shut last year after the Trump administration ousted the $1.5 million-a-year breeding program run by the U.S. Geological Survey.
"Whooping cranes are still endangered, but the overall population has grown more than tenfold in the last 50 years since Patuxent's program began," John French, a director of the Patuxent center, said in March. "The end of the USGS program is an indication of just how far we've come in our research and recovery efforts."
The Houston Zoo was one of numerous zoos and wildlife centers that came forward to take the 75 birds in Patuxent's care. In some cases, the centers continued the breeding initiative that has already raised enough cranes to preserve close to 800 birds scattered across four North American flocks, including the one that voyages to Texas every winter.
Texas' flock is migratory and the lone independent one in North America. Every year, the whooping cranes journey 2,600 miles (4,200 kilometers) from Canada to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.